Following 2019's Harriet, celebrated director Kasi Lemmons brings the life of another black icon to the screen in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody from Sony Pictures. Anthony McCarten, a four-time Academy Award nominee (two of which were for Best Adapted Screenplay), pens the film.
Toplining the movie in a star-making performance is English actress Naomi Ackie. Before I delve into the review, I'll address the elephant in the room: Ms. Ackie doesn't look like Ms. Houston. I've always felt Joy Bryant favors Whitney if we rely on looks alone, and I would be okay with seeing her in the role. However, I am not a casting director, and the Houston estate and Clive Davis (executive producers on the film) saw something in Ackie, which is why she got the part.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in 1994 as Whitney prepares for a performance at the American Music Awards. We then travel back to 1983 as Whitney is singing in church under the watchful eye of her Cissy (Tamra Tunie). Before long, Whitney meets Robin Crawford (Nafessa Williams), and the two become fast friends and eventually more. Fate intertwines when Whitney catches the eyes and ears of legendary record exec Clive Davis (Stanely Tucci), who signs her to a record deal and becomes her second father. After Whitney signs the record deal, it's a race to the finish line highlighting the highs and lows of Whitney's life
Anthony McCarten's screenplay delves deeper than he did with the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. We primarily focus on the good in Houston's life with flourishes of the negative. From the moment the film was greenlit with McCarten as the writer, I had a hunch he would follow the same template as that film. For the most part, he does. Now spoiler alert, if you're expecting to hear "Crack is whack" or see any of the shenanigans from Being Bobby Brown, none of that appears in the film.
I don't want to get into too much detail, but the film doesn't sugarcoat Whitney's addiction or her tribulations, and I was surprised by how deep they delve. There's also one surprise cameo in the movie that I didn't think they would touch on, but it works, and it will surprise folks who don't know the history.
Since this is a musical biopic, the soundtrack is a crucial component. Thankfully, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is authorized by the family, so we hear Whitney's voice. There are moments when Ackie sings acapella, and she has a pleasant voice, but the show stoppers are all Whitney's voice. Regarding Lemmons's direction, it appears she was a hired gun. Thus Lemmons doesn't get to truly put her stamp on the film as she has on other biopics. However, the big musical moments in the movie make up for that.
Naomi Ackie is simply a wonder to behold as Houston. After viewing the film, I decided to revisit some of the moments, and it's uncanny how effortlessly Ackie got Whitney's mannerisms and her personality. I couldn't help but smile whenever she was on screen, and I looked forward to seeing her more. Similarly, Nafessa Williams is enjoyable as Robin Crawford, and the two have excellent chemistry.
Sans Stanely Tucci, the rest of the supporting cast deliver Wikipedia-style performances. Ashton Sanders has the unfortunate task of playing Bobby Brown after Woody McClain put his stamp on the role. I understand this project is how the family saw Brown, but even Whitney is on record saying he was nowhere near as unlikable as the film portrays him. More enjoyable, though, was Clark Peters as John Houston, Whitney's dad and manager.
As with most biopics, a significant amount is omitted from the film. There are critical points mentioned and quickly dropped. In addition, the timeline jumps off numerous times. I don't necessarily point the finger at Lemmons or McCarten but at the editor. One thing I can't forgive, though, is a HUGE continuity error involving Brown that even a casual fan will know is wrong. Trust and believe you will know it when it happens.
Nevertheless, when the film does end on a glorious moment for Houston, hearing that iconic voice and seeing Naomi Ackie elude Black Girl magic, the film achieves its goal of being a passable musical biopic.
Final Grade: B-
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in theaters tomorrow